NY Times Reviews Hisham Matar’s “My Friends”

In ‘My Friends’ an Exile Finds Himself Outside Libya, but Never Far Away

A rash decision to attend an anti-Qaddafi protest in London reverberates in Hisham Matar’s poignant and quietly suspenseful third novel.

By Peter C. Baker

MY FRIENDS, by Hisham Matar

In the works of the Libyan-born writer Hisham Matar, a few subjects take center stage again and again. There’s the violence of the Muammar el-Qaddafi regime: torture, assassination, disappearance, confessions broadcast on state television, government agents listening to phone calls. And there’s the experience of Libyans seeking safety in exile. Matar — himself one such exile — picks apart their psyches, analyzing at a microscopic level how violence and migration have altered how they think and feel and relate to the people closest to them. He has returned to this cluster of topics as if it’s a house he’s obsessed with, examining it from different angles, sneaking inside and finding new rooms, even new wings.

In Matar’s first novel, “In the Country of Men” (2007), a young boy struggles to understand the way his family’s life is shaped not just by Qaddafi’s dictatorship, but also by his father’s dangerous secret work as an activist. By the end, the child has been sent for his own safety to Egypt; it is implied that he might never return. In “Anatomy of a Disappearance” (2011), a Libyan boy raised in Egypt is sent reeling when his father, an anti-Qaddafi agitator, is kidnapped and disappeared in Libya’s menacing network of secret prisons. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 memoir, “The Return,” he wrote about his own activist father’s disappearance under similar circumstances, and about a 2012 journey he made to Libya, hoping the man he hadn’t seen in decades might somehow still be alive. These are harrowing books, evoking how insidiously oppression seeps into the soul.

Matar’s new novel, the ambitious and poignant “My Friends,” is his first book about Libyans without the figure of the persecuted father. The protagonist, Khaled, is a young man who leaves Libya in 1983 to attend university in Scotland. His dad opposes the Qaddafi regime, but keeps his opinions to himself, writing political studies he never shows to anyone. Khaled isn’t really an activist either, but he does agree — almost on impulse, queasily high on the thrill of transgression — to attend an anti-Qaddafi protest outside the Libyan Embassy in London. Read the full review at the New York Times.

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